‘Are my parents OK? Where are they?’ Immigrant kids’ first questions when they arrive in a New York

Twenty children who had been separated from their parents after crossing the US-Mexico border recently arrived at a foster care facility just outside New York City — and the first thing they wanted to know was if their parents were alright.

“The biggest concern that our children have had recently is about, for their parents,” Jeremy Kohomban, who runs the Children’s Village facility, said Thursday. “It’s not even about themselves. Is my mom okay? Is my dad going to be okay? Where are they? What’s happening? That’s the anxiety.”

He said one of the first things the staff does is to work with federal partners to locate the parents and have the children talk to them on the phone.

The children are elated and relieved to hear the voices of their parents, despite the many miles now separating them. Kohomban said the call is a first, important step to building trust with his team.

While Kohomban cannot talk about the children currently at Children’s Village or the details of its partnership with the government, he emphasized his staff prioritizes the children’s well-being.

Upon arrival, kids at the foster care facility go to a 24-hour medical center where a doctor checks on their health. If they need care for a long-standing condition or something they picked up on the long journey to the states, they get treatment.

“In general we use this as an opportunity to attend to a lot of medical issues that kids never had addressed” because they didn’t have a doctor or the money for one, Dr. Doug Waite said.

The images from this peaceful New York campus are starkly different from detention centers where undocumented immigrants are kept inside chain-link holding cells.

Kohomban, a first-generation American whose parents are from Sri Lanka and the UK, has long been an advocate for keeping families together. He said he believes we need to take a deep look at the immigration system and make changes.

“It’s frustrating and heartbreaking. I know we can do it better. I know that there’s absolutely no reason for us to take these steps,” he said. “This kind of forced separation has permanent damage. Psychological, fear, anxiety. The fear of the unknown. If this could happen to me, what else could happen to me?”

The facility provides “a variety of short-term residential programs for youth in foster care or the juvenile justice system, undocumented children, and homeless teens,” Children’s Village says on its website.

On the 180 acres in Dobb’s Ferry, children live in cottages, attend school, play basketball or soccer and attend service in a chapel. Nurses check in daily on the kids.

The 20 undocumented children who were separated from their parents are between the ages of 9 and 17. He isn’t sure how long the children will be there. But he wants them reunited with their families as quickly as possible.

“We don’t want to keep kids away from families one minute longer than they already have been,” he said.

He also wanted people to know the staff is “not doing this on our own.” Federal partners help, he said.

“We have some great public servants,” he said. “At times like this, it seems that it is easy to complain about everyone, but I want to make a point to note that there are a lot of people helping us.”

The goal, he said, is to allow the kids to be kids.

“We need to try to recreate childhood,” he said. “We want to keep them engaged while they are here.”